Foreign Exploration and Descriptions of India

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Foreign Exploration and Descriptions of India


During the latter part of the Middle Ages, India, China, and the European countries embracing Christianity were the prominent centers of the known world. For a brief period, exploration brought new geographic understanding and an exchange of ideas between the people and cultures of the East and the West. Arabic travelers and Christian pilgrimages provided important geographic and cultural information about China and India. Jordanus of Séverac, a French Catholic monk, traveled to India and wrote Mirabilia (Book of marvels, c. 1330), describing the geography and people. Biruni, a Persian scholar and scientist, wrote a book that discussed and described the history, geography and religion of India. Biruni's book was called Kitāb fī tahqīq ma li'l-Hind, translated and published as India (c. 1030), and later, Al-Beruni's India. Jordanus's account is still considered among the most valuable Western descriptions of India during the Middle Ages, and Biruni's work is considered today one of the greatest medieval works of travel and social analysis, and is still of great interest to scholars.


The peoples of Asia and Europe had contact and knowledge of one another since the time of Alexander the Great (reigned 336-323 b.c.). Indirectly, goods from Asia arrived in Europe; spices were traded from Ceylon and Java, and carpets from Persia. Islam effectively lay like a wall between Europe and all of the trade routes to the East. However, by the beginning of the thirteenth century, Italian priests were established in the ports and cities of India and China. Because of the conquests of the nomadic Mongol people (known as the Tartars) and their roadbuilding, traders, merchants and monks moved unhindered on the great silk route across Central Asia or traveled through Persia to the coastal seaports to embark on the sea route. The Europeans could now take their Christian faith and trade directly to India.

One of the most interesting descriptions of India was given by Jordanus of Séverac, a French monk who traveled to India in 1321. His book, Mirabilia, or, The Book of Marvels discusses Jordanus's attempt to reestablish contact with the Christians living in India at the time, known as Nestorian Christian Missionaries. The book also contains a series of geographical as well as biographical sketches of his travels in India, Armenia, and Persia. Of India, he writes of the fabulous riches, the teeming bazaars, the weaving of cotton and muslin, the pearl fisheries of Ceylon, the abundant pepper and spice gardens, and the harbors filled with oceangoing ships. He describes India as being very hot, with exotic fruits like mangoes and coconuts, with multicolored parrots, elephants and crocodiles. He also speaks about the Hindu religion, with its sacred cows, enormous bronze idols and the Brahman caste system.

Jordanus also gives readers an interesting description of the Chinese boats, known as junks, that traveled from India to China. Constructed of fir and single decked, with fifty or sixty cabins and four to six masts, and powered by sail and oar crews of up to 400 men, these boats took travelers to Java, Sumatra, and Indochina on voyages lasting two years or more. The book contains accounts of the East Indies and Indochina, but it appears that Jordanus never personally visited these places. Instead, he repeats both accurate and inaccurate information that he had heard from other travelers.

A scholar from the East, Biruni (973-after 1050) from Persia, wrote an account of his travels in India nearly 300 years before Jordanus. He is among the most revered and renowned of the Persian scholars and one of the most outstanding scientists of all time. His scientific contributions to the body of scientific knowledge span the fields of history, geography, physics, chemistry, and astronomy. However, his most famous book, translated and published as India, was a study of India written early in the eleventh century.

Biruni served as the court astrologer and astronomer to the Mongol king, Mahmud of Ghazna. Biruni accompanied Mahmud on his conquests in India and for 20 years, he traveled throughout the area. It was during this time that Biruni learned Sanskrit and enjoyed a deep and scholarly exchange of ideas with Indian philosophers and scientists about the geography, chronology, medicine, literature, weights and measures, marriage customs, and astrology of the Indian people.


Early in the European medieval times, the arts, sciences, and philosophies dwindled and interest in exploration and discovery ceased. There were no expeditions sent out to acquire new geographic knowledge. Commerce and trade shrank, while people pursued theology and became involved in holy wars and crusades. What was left of knowledge and science found refuge in the monasteries. For most of Europe, the idea of a round earth, which the Greek astronomers had contemplated, became fiction as the world became a flat disc once again. Yet, this growing Christian Church and these conflicts and crusades introduced the exchange of ideas and cultures that would shatter the medieval world.

The opening up of Asia during the latter part of medieval times brought the rich cultures of India and China back into the European mind. This time period, although relatively brief, became the driving force for later exploration and offered unprecedented opportunities for geographic, cultural, and scientific contact between East and West. Travelers, monks, and scholars attempted to convey the richness and complexity of the geographic landscape, people, and religions of India, despite the fact that the worldviews of the Indians and the Europeans were very different.

Though the information about this period is scanty, it appears that Biruni served as a major catalyst in the exchange of East-West knowledge and philosophies early in the eleventh century. Biruni went into greater depth in his study of Indian religion, philosophy and literature than anyone before or after him. Biruni traveled and studied the Hindu culture for nearly 20 years. In return, he taught the Indian pundits Greek, Muslim sciences, and philosophy. Whether he was writing about astronomy, medicine, geography, or religion he attempted to see the world from the Indian perspective—an unusual attitude for his time.

Biruni was also a scientist, and he made constant use of observation measurement and, when possible, experimentation. Traveling through the plains of north India, he was struck by the nature of the soil and concluded that the entire area had once been a sea that had been filled in with alluvium. An interesting combination of observation, wide reading, and imagination led him to express an idea similar to Darwin's theory of natural selection. He also worked out the circumference of the earth to be 42,778 miles (about 68,844 km)—remarkably close to its true circumference. Another interesting characteristic of his method of studying Indian civilization was to compare Greek and Indian ideas. He felt that the Greeks were able to distinguish scientific truth and the Hindus were not.

As far as we know, Biruni was the first scholar to study the Puranas, vast collections of Indian stories about myths and gods. He was familiar with the Mahabharata, with its account of a great war, and the Bahagavad Gita finding it, as many others past and present, a guide to understanding the complex Indian religion.

Despite Biruni's unparalleled knowledge of Indian science, religion, and geography, his work in India had very little influence until the Persian historian Rashid-al-Din used it as a major reference in his book on the history of the world written in 1305. Not for over eight hundred years would another writer examine India with such thoroughness and understanding. His work, translated by the German scholar, E. C. Sachau in the late 1800s, from Arabic to German, and then to English has allowed many Westerners to appreciate the rigor of Biruni's writing.

Jordanus also displays a surprising ability for careful observation and description including a capacity for investigating and sifting facts, which was not very common among fourteenth-century writers. From him we do not get the sound and practiced scholarship of Biruni, but we do get a glimpse of the European medieval mind—one that blends mythical descriptions with realistic ones. He blends descriptions of dragons with elephants and unicorns while giving some of the first accurate descriptions of native plants and animals. Jordanus offered a gateway through which Europe was able to imagine the vast landscape of India and parts of Asia.

Through the writings and travels of individuals like Biruni and Jordanus, medieval Europeans had the opportunity to experience another part of the world completely different from their own. This intermingling of Eastern and Western ideas would provide fertile ground and a driving force for the coming centuries of exploration and discovery of the world.


Further Reading

Beazley, Raymond C. The Dawn of Modern Geography, Vol. III. New York: 1949.

Jordanus Catalani (de Séverac). Mirabilia Descripta: The Wonders of the East. Trans. Sir Henry Yule. London: Hakluyt Society, 1863.

Kimble, George. Geography in the Middle Ages. New York: Russell and Russell. 1968.

Newton, Arthur Perceival. Travel and Travellers of the Middle Ages. New York: Books for Libraries Press. 1926.

Sachau, Edward, translator. Al-beruni's India. New York: Norton. 1971.

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Foreign Exploration and Descriptions of India

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